Author’s note: I do my best to speak about sexual violence in an inclusive way. I want to note that sexual violence happens to all people, not just women, especially those with marginalized identities. However, I am limited by my own experiences and identities. I do not wish to silence anyone’s voice or discredit anyone’s experiences.
Sexual assault is a disturbingly prevalent and widespread issue. It is something that many of us grow up keenly aware of. However, the way we talk about sexual violence and violence prevention is often not representative of the reality.
I was taught the basics of stranger danger as a child. I was wary of white vans without windows. I knew never to accept candy from strangers. As I got older and became an adolescent, the rules changed and increased. I learned how to hold my keys between my fingers when walking alone. I always checked the backseat before getting into my car. I walked from streetlight to streetlight, faked a phone call and avoided eye contact. When I got even older and left for college, I was gifted pepper spray and a lecture on never leaving my drink unattended. All of these strategies so diligently pounded into my head were well intentioned, they sought only to protect me from the violence that is too often present in women’s lives. However, this advice creates an unrealistic image of who perpetrators may be. These “violence prevention” strategies (which are actually quite victim blaming, but that’s an article for another day) taught me that the stranger danger I learned as a child would forever be present. I feared people jumping out from bushes or sneaking into my house. While this, regrettably, does happen, the overwhelming majority of sexual violence include a perpetrator that the victim knows. In fact, >>93% of juvenile victims and >>66% of victims age 18-29 know their perpetrator. By creating and perpetuating this never ending fear of stranger rape, we fail to acknowledge or discuss what is all too often the unfortunate reality of violence perpetrated by those we know and trust.
I am in no way advocating that we stop teaching children not to talk to strangers, but we cannot present that as a solution to sexual or any other form of violence. We must also teach one of the main pillars of sexual violence prevention, the importance of consent. Consent is the one thing that is alway 100% necessary for any sexual activity to occur. Teaching children what it means to give and receive consent and why that process is important will allow them to be aware of when there is the absence of consent. Too often our education about consent ends at “No means no”, an antiquated and insufficient definition of the concept. Instead, we need to talk about affirmative consent, the presence of a freely given, enthusiastic, reversible, engagement. We need to teach the importance of both giving and receiving the consent. We need to talk about what it can look like. We need to ensure that they know that a coerced yes is not consent. Teaching our children about the important realities of consent is one of the most important strategies for keeping them safe.
The idea of talking about consent with a young child may seem more daunting than talking about the danger of strangers, but that is exactly why it is such an important conversation to have. We are told from so many different sources that sex is something that is private or even something to be ashamed of, not something to be openly discussed. However, this can lead to a discomfort of talking about sexual acts with anyone, including our sexual partners. Normalizing the conversation around sex and consent not only teaches the concepts but helps practice talking about what we’re comfortable with happening. Sex is also not the only area in which consent is relevant. You can begin teaching young children about their right to bodily autonomy, that they have the right to determine what happens to their body. Teach them that it’s okay to say no to hugging or kissing someone, even a relative. Teaching children about affirmative consent will not only help keep them safe and allow them to be aware of when someone is violating their rights, it will teach them to be kind and respectful people who respect other people’s boundaries as well.
We all want to keep our kids safe, no matter how old they get. But when we overemphasize stranger danger and victim blaming prevention strategies, we forget to teach them the basics of consent. This can lead to them forgetting that sex without consent is not sex at all. It’s rape.